This week Bryan and I were witness to a miracle, the miracle of our daughter’s own body potentially healing the unhealable – with the help of a miracle in cutting-edge medicine.
As many of you may remember, our youngest daughter Anya, just 16 at the time, was injured a year ago in a ferocious hockey game and entirely ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament, the one between the thigh and shin bones mostly responsible for allowing the knee to pivot and twist. This is a catastrophic injury because conventional medicine has no satisfactory solution.
The British orthopedic surgeon we consulted urged us to have reconstructive surgery immediately, which entails taking a bit of her hamstring, fashioning it into a Frankenstein ligament, screwing that into her bones and hoping it takes.
As we are no strangers to medical literature, we examined all the studies about the success of this particular operation. Some patients – including one of our middle-aged friends – do brilliantly, and return to all sporting activities with the same ability they had prior to injury.
The vast majority do not. Many require multiple revision surgery. Most lose 20 per cent of their hamstring strength. Others suffer constant pain, and although we were warned that Anya might suffer arthritis if we left things alone, studies examining patients having the surgery versus those who don’t conclude that knees left alone fare just as well as those undergoing surgery. In fact one study carried out by a major American orthopaedic medical body concluded that patients undergoing reconstructive surgery actually do worse in the long run with a greater likelihood of developing arthritis 10 years after surgery than those who just live with the injury.
With reconstructive surgery, there is no way that doctors can guarantee that the new ligament will react in the same way as the old one – it can be too tight, too loose or have different load-bearing capabilities. Then there were all the things that could go wrong: the hamstring ligament is often put in the wrong angle, restricting movement and possibly, in my daughter’s case, inhibiting growth.
Clearly, in our view, this was not even the court of last resort, as she was in no pain, moving normally, and able to do everything easily except jumping and pivoting.
At first we tried a course of prolotherapy – the best option available to us in Britain, which tends to favour the traditional reconstructive approach. The 10 injections plus exercise strengthened the knee so considerably that Anya was running and resuming normal exercise. Her physio recommended that she attempt a trial of hockey training. Last August, after several days of too enthusiastic training, she injured herself again – this time tearing her posterior cruciate ligament and the meniscus, the spongy tissue lining the knee.
Anya was consigned to the bench and we to the drawing board, trying to figure out what reasonable options were left to us.
I began investigating doctors in the US who are using the patient’s own stem cells to heal orthopedic damage. After interviewing five doctors around the US expert in this procedure, I settled on a clinic that pioneered a method of extracting the patient’s own fat or bone marrow stem cells plus blood platelets. I preferred them because among all the doctors carrying out this procedure, they were the first; they’d been doing it longest (10 years), they’d collected and publishing the results of their work and they were tracking all their patients.
On February 11, last week, Anya, Bryan and I flew to the States.
It required a good deal of courage on my daughter’s part, who endured giant needles, a hammering into her hip bones to extract bone marrow, and multiple blood extraction and injections over the eight days of the procedure. On the first day, the doctors examined her with both ultrasound and an arthroscopy (which entails injecting a 6-inch needle with a camera attached inside the knee to see what is going on), an exam that confirmed all the injuries and showed that the ACL, in two pieces and very far apart, was beyond non-operative repair.
Nevertheless, our doctor, a sport specialist as well as an orthopedic surgeon, had handled a number of athletes in a similar situation and stabilized their knees by strengthening the knee’s capsule, a ligament that encircles the knee. Largely because Anya fit into the category of a ‘coper’ – someone who was able to run and carry on with normal activity without pain or instability, he felt she could live without an ACL so long as they concentrated on building up the capsule.
In this instance, besides injecting the PCL, meniscus and a damaged tendon with her blood and stem cells, he also injected the capsule. Although we have to return several times to get PRP – spun down blood platelets – to further strengthen the capsule, with a little luck she’ll be back on the hockey pitch come September, with a knee that functions, to all intents and purposes, like a normal knee.
We left with a full nutritional and supplement plan and are now working on Anya’s rehabilitation.
For the entire week, we were witness to all manner of supposedly incurable orthopedic illness being resolved through this process: one elderly woman so damaged with arthritis she could barely walk had become a mountain climber after her procedure; another woman whose ACL was damaged 20 years ago receiving the same treatment as Anya with the same expected outcome. Rotator cuff injuries, spinal injuries – all were open to repair without the often catastrophic effects of surgery.
Not surprisingly, the US Food and Drug Administration does not like this one little bit. Autologous stem-cell therapy not only threatens to revolutionize orthopedic medicine as we know it. It also threatens to wipe up some £30 billion pain management drug business. The FDA, which has been bought and paid for by the drug industry, have (unsuccessfully) challenged our doctors, who promptly sued the agency for interfering with trade.
Recently, in an attempt to control this new medicine, the FDA ruled that your own stem cells should now be considered a ‘drug’, subject to the agency’s control. Clearly it is time to fire these drug detail men that constitute the FDA and set up a new and cleaner regulatory agency.
Only time will tell whether Anya’s treatment worked, but our doctors are very optimistic. And I, so cynical about the state of modern medicine, have had my faith restored. These doctors – all conventionally trained – have moved beyond conventional medicine by understanding that the most powerful healer of all lies inside your own body.